Sunday, April 6, 2008

Teatro Punto Workshop

Two weeks ago, I attended a day-long commedia dell'arte workshop conducted by Carlos García-Estévez and Katrien van Beurden of Teatro Punto. As commedia dell'arte is a rich tradition with a long history a day-long workshop could never be adequate to teach all there is to know, but neither is the time I have put in working first with the short lived Teatro Commedia, and currently with i Sebastiani, nor could the class I teach at Open Air Circus could have taught me all that I need to know as a commedia performer. Conversely, any opportunity to add to my knowledge, skills, insight, and experience with commedia is desirable.

Teatro Punto's approach to commedia is not that of historical recreation, but to take the archtypes represented by the masks and discover them in the contemporary world. All of the historical techniques of commedia are still relevant as ever, but the goal is not to indulge nostalgia, but to reflect a world that the audience recognizes.

The workshop began with a series of exercises revolving around being prepared to act in and react: an ability needed in the world of improvised theatre. Standing in a circle, we had to respond to any number of tasks, each round introducing a new tasks: tossing and catching balls, trading places with one other, passing objects, singing, stomping one's feet (this last one was quite simple for me owing to my kathak studies) all while staying in communication with one another. When one is multitasking in this manner, one realizes just how often one's mind has a tendency to drift, even in the altered state of performance.

Afterwards, we experimented with the physical stance of different characters-- something I have been doing since my earliest studies as a mime-- how different characters are made manifest by emphasis or inclination of the pelvis, abdomen, chest, or head. One insight I did gain was that while some of these stylizations are typical of specific of various comic archtypes, they are also representative of different theatrical genres, the puffed up chest that would serve an innamorato, or an arrogant Capitano while not appropriate for tragedy might also be appropriate for melodrama.

During the lunch break a few other workshop participants and I joined Carlos, Katrien, Judith Chaffee, a theatre professor at Boston University, who was acting as the host for the the workshop (check out her website, During lunch Carlos and Katrien discussed their time studying with Antonio Fava and how their approach to commedia differs, and we local participants discussed the difficulty in building an audience for any sort of physical theatre in the Boston area.

On returning to the classroom and began work on our own lazzi, encouraged to use mime, grammelot (nonsense syllables that resemble an actual language.) Afterwards, we were given a primer on the technique of the traditional leather mask-- how to hold it when placing it on the face and also how one is supposed to use the face behind the mask: Counter-intuitively, the face does not become passive when covered: all masks require holding one's eyes wide open, and certain masks (some of the vecchi, for instance) demand that one cover one's teeth with one's lips.

Katrien explained that in the early days of commedia, the actors were often hungry and desperate, and this did not only force them to innovate, but it meant that the tragic dimensions were as visible as the comedic. In modern western societies, there simply is little reason for an actor to be literally starving. Since withholding food was not an option as we had all eaten lunch, a new technique was added to create desperation: Carlos acted as an interlocutor for every one of us-- often disrupting the lazzo we had created earlier, with questions about our character's backstory, whether we are keeping our eyes open under the masks, and whether we were making contact with the audience or just going through our rehearsed lazzo. This was the most difficult part of the workshop, with many unexpected results.

A workshop is not just an opportunity to show off the technique one already had, or to learn new techniques, but to learn about one's own short comings as a performer. In my case, I realized that my own dedication towards developing my technique-- both in terms of the precision and skill of my mime work, and the detail with which I craft my routines, while an attraction to the audience, is also a shield I put up to avoid being vulnerable to the audience-- and so, something that this performer must overcome. That said, I highly recommend Teatro Punto's workshops to any performer interested in commedia dell'arte.

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